It was James’ idea. He likes the kind of challenge that can be measured and compared, something to compete against. My own mountaineering aspirations lie in seeking out remote wilderness, far from the madding crowd. Finding a pleasing line up the mountain, something rocky and technical is a welcome bonus. In other words, pretty much the opposite of the National 3 Peaks 24 Hour Challenge – rushing up three of the most popular mountains in Britain via well-worn tracks, sandwiched by hours and hours of driving on congested roads. But despite my best efforts to inspire James with the allure of the Ring of Steall, the beauty of Stac Pollaidh and the outright awesomeness of the Cuillins, it was my ill-advised mention of the 3 Peaks Challenge that caught his imagination and nothing else would be countenanced until he had done it. Still, any opportunity to get Dad and Lad time together in the mountains is a precious thing and so we agreed to go for it.
It’s a popular challenge – to climb up and down the highest mountains of Scotland, England and Wales, driving between them, within 24 hours. Best tackled in summer, with maximum daylight and the best chance of good weather, we decided to do it in late October instead for entirely logical but now forgotten reasons. We also decided to raise money for Calder Valley Search and Rescue Team. This is our local mountain rescue team (I’m a volunteer with them) which rescues people from the more inaccessible corners of West Yorkshire – heart attacks on the moors, upturned mountain bikers in the woods, people falling into old quarries and more. The team is funded by public donations and is run entirely by volunteers. So it was the obvious cause for us to support through sponsorship of our quest.
This is what you need to contemplate the 3 Peaks Challenge:
- Some mountaineers: me and James.
- A driver: fellow mountain rescue team member Richard ‘Up for Anything’ Quinn was willingly co-opted.
- A plan – start time, mountain and driving routes, food, clothing, equipment: all sorted from the comfort of a laptop and the gear cupboard.
- A fitness regime.
The fitness regime turned out to be one task too many. James claimed, with some persuasive reasoning, that he was fit enough already on account of his regular football playing. I couldn’t drum up any similar excuse for myself and reluctantly promised to go running. I hate running. It makes me feel unfit. And my last run, only a week before our 3 Peaks kick-off, only served to confirm my opinion. A short circuit around the wonderful landscape of Robin Hood Bay’s clifftops and beach started as a companionable jog with a friend and ended with me spraining my ankle. Not very good training after all. I won’t make the mistake of going running again.
It was clear that we would need to postpone the challenge. A brief moment of mature and sensible reflection (defer the challenge to next Spring) swiftly passed and I convinced myself that my ankle was recovering rapidly enough for a postponement of one day to be sufficient.
And so the 27th of October found the three of us parked outside Glen Nevis Youth Hostel in the darkness of 7pm, ready for 24 hours of self-administered madness. We felt confident and were ready in mind and body. Except for my ankle which hadn’t healed but I decided I could ignore. The plan was:
- 7pm to midnight – climb Ben Nevis
- Midnight to 5:30am – drive to Wasdale Head
- 5:30am to 9:30am – climb Scafell Pike
- 9:30am to 2pm – drive to Pen-y-Pass
- 2pm to 6pm – climb Snowdon
That would leave an hour for petrol stops and any delays, for us to meet the 24 hour target. Richard would need to get all his sleep in the car while we were climbing and James and I would try and both eat and sleep while being chauffeured between the mountains. It was a good plan.
We blasted up Ben Nevis in the dark. The steep bit at the start was a good warm up, passing the lochan at half height a welcome punctuation, the long zig zags up the shoulder of the Ben speedily ticked off – five left turns, four right turns. My ankle hurt but not alarmingly so. The last stretch of almost a kilometre to the summit was less fun: cold, wet and windy. But we avoided falling down any of the five fingers of Five Finger Gully or down the more dramatic North Face cliffs hidden in the cloud a few metres to our left. We reached the top of Ben Nevis right on target, three hours after setting off.
The highest point, as any Ben Nevis ascensionist will know, is the not trig point which is used for the official height of the mountain (measured in 2016 as 1345m – one metre higher than the previous measurement, yay!) but the emergency shelter perched atop a massive cairn, beating the trig point by a couple of metres. So we crawled into the metal tomb and got a brief respite from the wind. Not brief enough though – precious minutes galloped by as we struggled to get a selfie with my new phone. Battery-sapped by the GPS tracking for the last three hours, the phone died with first flash photo. More time wasted deploying the mobile charger, restarting the tracking, recomposing the glory shot with balanced headtorches as scene lights and we were done. Out the shelter, back into the wretched weather, and navigate safely off the summit (150m on 231o then 800m on 281o – make a note) back to the zig zags.
Our descent rate slowed. James looked tired and cold but wouldn’t put another layer on and wouldn’t eat anything. My ankle was re-asserting myself with a vengeance and I had left my trekking pole in the car. We pushed on regardless, James picking up speed as the lights of Glen Nevis grew brighter and me discovering a new curse for each painful step. Richard was waiting with the engine running, as we crossed the bridge: he had been tracking us with the Viewranger Buddy Beacon on his phone. We had done the Big One – in many ways the warm up for the whole challenge – taking half an hour longer than our target time but as we sped off southwards we felt good. The team was working well and we were still in with a good chance of beating the 24 hours, so long as we didn’t hit any significant traffic delays.
The bridge at Ballachulish was closed. Nobody had warned us. I suppose if you have to do some essential welding on a box girder bridge, 1am on a Saturday morning is as good a time as any. Richard skilfully avoided tailgating the welder’s van and instead swerved around to commit to the long detour around Loch Leven, grim determination written across his face. Forty minutes extra driving – not at all welcome. James, sprawled across pillows and snug under a sleeping bag across the back seat enjoyed a victor’s sleep. I didn’t. Pain, nausea and a sense of impending Scafell Pike kept me largely awake until we hit the next uncalled for roadblock at Dumbarton. It was a bad night to be in a hurry on the A82.
The Dumbarton diversion at least gave as the opportunity to re-carb. My original plan to cook up noodles and cup-a-soups on a stove wedged between my feet in the passenger footwell as we raced down the motorway turned out to be impractical, so the Dumbarton drive-thru McDonalds was a reasonable alternative. James and Richard wolfed down their burgers and chips, calorie dials spinning. I contemplated my meagre veggie burger disconsolately then heartily retched out of the window on the Erskine Bridge. I felt more human after that and drifted into a fitful sleep somewhere after Glasgow.
Waking up on the winding roads of Wasdale at 6:30am, ten minutes before having to set off up Scafell Pike in a soul-sapping drizzle in the dark did not greatly inspire me. Scafell Pike was always going to be the toughest of the three mountains psychologically – early morning, tired from Ben Nevis, but the end not yet in sight. James was reassuringly upbeat as we set off, especially as he had inexplicably decided from a previous expedition up Scafell Pike from Langdale, that he hated this mountain. The first twenty minutes on an uneven rocky path following Lingmell Gill was hell. I was beginning to regret pretty much everything as my ankle pain-stabbed on every step. I’d remembered the walking pole this time, so at least I didn’t fall over. I wasn’t prepared to ditch the whole escapade at this stage, especially with James doing so well. Already maxed out on ibuprofen, I decided now was the time crack open my painkiller of last resort – top strength co-codamol – and press on. And on and on up through the steep screes to the col below the summit. The pain eased to a manageable level and a watery daylight seeped through the clouds to cheer us up but James’ spirits plunged on the last half hour staggering up the loose rocks to the summit in a strong wet wind and awful visibility.
The lee of the summit cairn gave us a moment to reflect on our misery but a triumphant summit selfie was out of the question and we cairn-hopped back down in the impenetrable cloud, wind in our faces for ten minutes before I realised we were following the wrong cairns. This was also the moment that Viewranger, my indispensable navigation app, turned out to be dispensable after all by failing on me. It’s never a good time to have this kind of crisis but I felt from the bottom of my heart that, standing above a steep cliff in 10 metre visibility with my suffering ankle and James overwhelmed with despair, this was a particularly bad time. A raven cawed ominously through the cloud. Now was the time to whip out the OS map one should always carry in the hills. Last time I had to unfold a 1:25000 map on top of a mountain in similar weather to this, the wind neatly ripped it in two and whisked away half of the map into the abyss never to be seen again (guess which half). This time I was armed with a small laminated map instead of the usual big flappy paper thing, and I held on to it with a tight paranoid grip while I worked out where we were. As it happens, we were on a better route down, avoiding the scree slope of our ascent path and soon out of the wind. Viewranger sprang back to life and my spirits rose. James remained resolutely miserable and offered mutinous grumblings until we reached the Wasdale Head carpark again.
Its fair to say we were both happy to get back to the car, especially when Richard conjured up two mugs of hot sweet tea procured from the car park tea caravan. And James perked up considerably when I discovered we had unexpectedly hit our target time of 4 hours.
We headed south, gently steaming, me nauseous again (perfect harmony of exhaustion, pain, dehydration, painkiller cocktail and winding roads), pausing only for me to desecrate Cumbria’s bucolic pasture by vomiting a bolus of half-digested chocolate on to it. This interruption had the benefit of putting a bit of space between us and the implausibly cautious BMW soft-top we had been tailing for the last five miles. Richard’s vocal frustration at being unable to overtake had given James a useful new vocabulary to take home.
Traffic jams on the M6 – hardly unusual – meant the timing of our triumphant arrival at Pen-y-Pass allowed us only three hours to get up and down Snowdon if we were going to hit the 24 hour target. James could probably have managed that. Unfortunately he had to be accompanied by his knackered and broken Dad limping up behind him. Richard volunteered to join us for this last ascent, which was most welcome if only because it gave James some more cheerful company than I could offer him.
The Pyg track up Snowdon is well built and easy to navigate and presented no great challenge for James and Richard – but was a struggle for me. My topped up analgesia combo (ibuprofen + paracetamol + codeine, if you’re taking notes) had reduced the pain in my ankle to a background noise so long as placed my foot carefully at each step. But it was my exhaustion that meant the other two had to regularly stop to let me catch up. By sheer attrition we reached the summit trig point by 6:30pm, rewarded by the usual thick cold cloud giving terrible visibility and a strong urge to not hang around. A mysterious green glow in the mist turned out to be the emergency exit sign of the café normally so brazen on Snowdon’s summit but tonight merely a dark hulk lurking.
Our return journey down the mountain seemed much faster, punctuated only by the occasional hiccup of drifting off the path in our partial blindness, headtorch light bouncing uselessly off a million water drops floating in the air. But the path seemed endless. The last section back down to the carpark seemed unfeasibly longer than it had only a few hours earlier on the way up. The rocky track suddenly morphed into tarmac and we were back. Viewranger tracking turned off, time checked by watch and phone: 8:30pm. We had done it. 23 miles of walking, 3.3km of ascent and 460 miles of driving between the mountains. Not quite in 24 hours but close enough, I would argue, allowing for our special blend of extra challenges. Certainly we were very happy to have finished, especially once I had secured us a bed (each) for the night at the youth hostel next to the car park, thus saving ourselves a three hour drive home.
We missed the last food orders at the hostel but managed to negotiate drinks and peanuts to celebrate our triumph. Richard seemed prepared to celebrate until dawn and and James looked ready to repeat the whole challenge in reverse order immediately. I all but fell asleep in my beer before limping off to bed to enjoy the long deep sleep deserved by a Lord of the Mountains, promising myself never to undertake such a ridiculous challenge ever again.